‘SVU’ actress Tamara Tunie speaks as victim of real-life theft

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by Jennifer Peltz

NEW YORK (AP)—“Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” actress Tamara Tunie spoke out Tuesday about being a real-life crime victim, saying her former business manager exploited her trust to steal more than $1 million she earned by working doggedly at a peak in her career.

TamaraTunie
TAMARA TUNIE

Blasting Joseph Cilibrasi as a “menace to society” as he was sentenced to 2 1/2 to 7 1/2 years in prison, Tunie, a native of Homestead, Pa., said he insinuated himself into her life by joining in birthday parties, weddings and other family events, only to use that closeness to embezzle from her and leave a lasting hole in her family’s finances.

“Show business is fickle, and though I have been blessed with a healthy career, who knows how long that will last?” Tunie told a Manhattan court. “As an African-American woman, roles are few and far between, and I cannot reasonably hope to replace what was stolen.”

Cilibrasi, 51, pleaded guilty in the fall to stealing from Tunie and other clients, including screenwriter Janet Roach and Kansas City Symphony music director Michael Stern. Cilibrasi used some of the stolen cash to finance his own forays into entertainment, including investing in movies and Broadway shows and hiring a screenwriter to pen a script about a historic building, the Manhattan district attorney’s office said.

Cilibrasi didn’t speak at his sentencing. His lawyer, Gerald Shargel, said Cilibrasi has accepted responsibility and expressed remorse.

In pleading guilty in November to grand larceny and other charges, Cilibrasi admitted he stole more than $1.4 million from Tunie by writing checks to himself from her accounts without her permission and by secretly opening a credit card account in her name, then getting his own card on the account by falsely listing himself as her husband.

The thefts came between 2000 and 2009, years Tunie described as a career high. Best known for playing medical examiner Melinda Warner for more than a decade on NBC’s “Law & Order: SVU,” Tunie also has appeared in Fox’s “24” and other series, and in such films as 1997’s “The Peacemaker,” starring George Clooney and Nicole Kidman.

Tunie told the court that she often worked three jobs at once, and that she supports her 77-year-old mother and helps nieces and nephews pay for college.

In cultivating his clients as friends, Cilibrasi “preys on people who believe they know him, who count on him for his expertise” and rely on his professional ethics, Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Peirce R. Moser told the court.

Cilibrasi acknowledged in his guilty plea that he stole $75,000 from Stern by pocketing checks he told Stern to write to cover some federal and Missouri state taxes. Stern was hit with tax penalties because the money never got to authorities, Cilibrasi said.

Cilibrasi also acknowledged opening a credit-card account in the name of another client, screenwriter Janet Roach. Her credits include 1985’s “Prizzi’s Honor,” starring Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner.

Stern said in a letter to the court that he’d endured years of tax trouble because of Cilibrasi, whom he’d trusted as a friend but now considers “a con man, through and through, and a born liar.” Roach said in a November phone interview she was saddened that Cilibrasi “brought this upon himself” but was glad the matter was resolved.

Cilibrasi used some of the proceeds of his crimes to back such shows as “Legally Blonde: The Musical” and the Tony Award-winning “Spring Awakening,” and films including the Tunie-directed “See You In September,” prosecutors said when the case was unveiled in 2010.

Prosecutors said Cilibrasi also used some of the ill-gotten cash to vacation in Italy, Puerto Rico and Los Angeles, and to hire a writer for a script about Bannerman Castle, an elaborate building on an island in the Hudson River.

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